Hindu mythology never seems to think below thousands. And the birth of Hinduism’s most sacred river too lies in an unbelievable number of myths and legends. Some believe that the holy waters of the Ganga were born of the goddess Parvati, consort of the destroyer Shiva. Others believe that the river came to earth as Jahnavi, or "of Jahnu," the sage who swallowed the river in his rage at being disturbed by the roar of its waters. That he then let the waters flow out of his ear allows for the fact that the river still flows, deep and broad and beautiful.
But most well-known is the story of Bhagirath and his long penance to save the souls of his ancestors. The legend goes that the ruler of Ayodhya, Sagar, performed the Ashwamedha yagya, a sacrifice in which he released a horse to roam the world, a symbol of Sagar’s own powers over the Earth. The horse roamed free 99 times around the world, until the deity Indra, jealous of Sagar’s powers, abducted the horse and (with a sneakiness one doesn’t usually connect with gods) planted it in the hermitage of the sage Kapila Muni.
Sagar’s 60,000 (!!) sons, all hot-blooded and breathing fire and brimstone, set out on a quest for the precious horse, and soon ran it to earth in the sage’s hermitage. Without much thought, they assaulted the sage - and paid dearly, for Kapila Muni gathered up all his powers and reduced all 60,000 of them to ashes.
The actual story now begins.
A descendant of Sagar, Bhagirath, decided to do something about saving the souls of his ancestors. Kapila Muni, perhaps in a fit of remorse, had divulged the fact that the waters of the Ganga, if brought down from heaven, would bring the dead princes to life. Bringing the river down from heaven was no mean feat, but Bhagirath put his heart and soul into it - and finally succeeded in his penance. Unfortunately, what he hadn’t taken into account was that his puny mortal shoulders wouldn’t be able to bear the burden of the thundering waters of the river. The river descended to Earth, but with such a cataclysmic roar that Bhagirath realised he’d never be able to contain it.
He prayed for help, therefore, to the god Shiva (the Destroyer - the same deity who, if you believe the other myth, is the husband of Parvati, mother of the Ganga. All very complex).
Shiva, for once not the Destroyer but rather the Preserver (a role that is typically assigned to the deity Vishnu), spread his matted locks and caught the waters of the river in them, gentling her flow and controlling her power so that she ascended to Earth quietly, a peaceful and life-giving river instead of a catastrophic deluge.
And, of course, a river that’s surrounded by a strange, alluring mist of legend and reality, tranquility, and vigour, a river that nurtures and destroys, a river that stands at the very core of spirituality for millions of Indians. It’s supposedly so holy, its waters so pure, that millions believe, even today, that just a single dip in the river can wash them of the sins of many a lifetime. The lucky folk who live by the riverbank and have easy access to its waters feel themselves privileged - and those who live farther off make other arrangements. The largest single pieces of silver in the world, interestingly enough, are a pair of 6-foot-tall Gangajalis - urns made especially to hold Ganga water - that reside today in the City Palace Museum in Jaipur. One of the erstwhile maharajas of Jaipur, a staunch believer in the purity of the river, never drank anything but Ganga water, and never ate anything that had been cooked in any other water. This was all very well while he lived in India, but when he was forced to go on a state visit to England, he was faced with the horrific prospect of having to sully his body and soul with (God forbid!) - what was it? Thames water? Whoever came up with the idea of taking hundreds of litres of good, holy Ganga water to England must have been richly rewarded.
Which just goes to show.
This river, rising in the Himalayas at the Gangotri glacier, flows down, past about 52 cities, 48 towns, and countless villages on a 2,500km-long course that takes it to the Bay of Bengal, where it joins with another mighty river, the Brahmaputra, to form the world’s largest estuarine delta, the Sunderbans. On its way, it gives rise to India’s richest alluvial plains and creates the Upper Gangetic Valley, home to a wide range of wildlife: tigers (though fast disappearing), leopards, elephants, wild boar, deer, and more. And there are, of course, the species that are found nowhere but in the waters of the Ganga itself: the Gangetic dolphin, the Ganga mahseer, and the Gangetic ghariyal.
But most people do not equate the Ganga with animals; they think of it as Ganga maiyya, Mother Ganga, the source of life. They follow its course, trekking (if extremely orthodox) all the way to the Gangotri glacier, or maybe even just doing a circuit of the Panch Prayag, the five confluences. For the Ganga is not really one river, but many. It flows in the form of tributaries and streams that meet at prayags or confluences, until the wide and deep Ganga is formed. At Vishnuprayag, the Alaknanda meets the Dhauli Ganga; at Nandprayag, the Alaknanda meets the Mandakini; at Karnaprayag, the Alaknanda is joined by the Pindar; at Rudraprayag, the Alaknanda once again meets a truant stream of the Mandakini; and finally, at Devprayag, the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi come together.
That isn’t all, of course; there are dozens of other towns - Haridwar, Rishikesh, Allahabad, Varanasi among them - where the Ganga flows, and where it is literally choked with pilgrims, people coming to wash away their sins, beg for salvation, and consign the ashes of their dead to the river.
There are 108 names, or so they say, for this river: Jahnavi; Jahnuputri (daughter of Jahnu); Siddha; Sita (furrow); Salil-vasa (water-dweller); Purna (complete); Punya (merit); Punya-vaahini (possessor of merit); and Swarg-sopaan-sarani (stretching as a staircase to heaven). And dozens of more names.
But call it what you will, this is a river like none other. There’s an impressiveness, a grandeur, a beauty about this river that goes way past its spirituality. You don’t need to be a Hindu to admire it. You don’t even need to be vaguely religious.